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Veracruz: Gulf Coast Gold

If B movies were cities, Veracruz would be box office gold. It’s bustling and noisy, with peeling paint; hot and humid in summer, blustery in fall, and full of conflict. I’m not talking about aggression, but a creative, irrepressible drama that’s epitomized at Los Portales, the nocturnal hub of society in this gulf coast city that’s approaching its 500th birthday.

Along the north side of the city’s zocalo, norteño bands drown out a harpist reluctant to relinquish territory. Musicians play to paying customers up and down the line of indoor--outdoor restaurants that segue seamlessly, six tables deep, an entire city block. Men in matching polyester shirts crank out son cubano while down the line, a trio of marimberos tinkle with tiny mallets the keys of their large yet portable percussion instrument.

A solo guitarist strolls the crowd, trying to entice us to emotionally abandon the established musicians. The noise swells as the crowd cheers a goal by El Tri. Here at Los Portales, we’re not just listening to music and joking with our friends, we’re keeping an eye on the national soccer team on TVs bolted to the restaurants’ cement arches.

Need a new Rolex? Fifteen bucks! Sip a lemonade, beer or mojito as you watch the crowd swirl around the large, open plaza, the clown defying physical devastation on a low-wire act between two tropical almond trees. Indian women dressed in their traditional clothing from Chamula, in far-away Chiapas, sell tropical clothing. Botaneros peddle snacks of cheese and tomato; others sell coconut sweets. The waiters do not chase them off. It’s a live-and-let-live kind of city.

The port of Veracruz isn’t for the upscale foreign vacationer. It’s scruffy looking, and the food isn’t at all sophisticated. Local raves sent a friend and me to a friendly restaurant where the dish we decided on was a plateful of unpeeled shrimp in chipotle chile sauce served with a basket of warmish corn tortillas and nothing else. We were totally underwhelmed. At the inimitable, 200-year-old Gran Cafe de la Parroquía, the food is just awful. But the enormous restaurant---full of locals day and night ordering coffee and then clinking their glasses to summon a waiter with a big kettle of hot milk---is great fun anyway, and we went every morning during our stay.

The prices at La Gran Café are ridiculously high, but mostly Veracruz is geared to local rather than foreign tourists and so represents a good value. With a privileged location overlooking the zocalo, the recently refurbished Gran Hotel Diligencias costs those with US dollars just about $100 a night. High season in Veracruz is related only to major school vacations and holidays (Christmas--New Years, Carnival, Easter, Independence Day, and so on).

Veracruz’s beaches aren’t a big attraction. The best ones are south of town toward Boca del Río: Playa de Hornos, Playa Pelicanos, Playa Gaviota and Playa Mocambo. You can walk along the seafront malecón from downtown all the way to these beaches and to the city’s nice Aquarium, supposed to be the second-best in Latin America. In Boca del Rio, visit the Agustín Lara museum, which pays tribute to the Veracruz songwriter, and the new naval museum aboard the Cañonero Guanajuato, a retired destroyer. The destroyer’s poop deck has been converted to a cafe-restaurant open most days until midnight. Across the street from the floating museum, a group of small restaurants offer traditional seafood dishes at good prices, and small boats depart from la Pequeña Venecia Veracruzana on a river and mangrove tour.

Another of the port city’s biggest attractions is San Juan de Ulua. Originally a Spanish fort, it was later turned into a notorious prison where president/dictator Porfirio Diaz sent his adversaries. Never allowed outsider visitors, the prisoners literally rotted away in the island penitentiary due to typhoid, tuberculosis, lack of food, and neglect. Today it's a popular place to visit for both kids and adults.

At the end of the day, we are almost magnetically drawn to the big, lively zocalo, where local couples dance the formal danzón to the tunes of the municipal band or semi-professionals in regional costumes perform the colorful jarocho veracruzano. Under Los Portales, a trio of marimba players outmaneuvers the norteño band, the diminutive clown passes the hat, and the crowd cheers another goal by the national soccer team. It’s just another sultry night in Veracruz.

Sunday night in the zocolo of Veracruz

Video compliments of Robert Crosthwait

For more things to do as well as hotels and restaurants, check out our Veracruz Travel Guide.

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